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Islamic Jihad in the spotlight as violence flares in Gaza

Islamic Jihad rockets led to Israeli escalation in the form of raids on the Gaza Strip, followed by Egypt-brokered truce on Thursday

Nadeen Shaker , Friday 14 Mar 2014
Gaza Strip
Islamic jihad militants take part in the funeral of three comrades, who were killed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip March 11, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
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At around midnight on Thursday, Majed Abusalama is trying to post news about Gaza to social media sites. Israeli warplanes hovering in the sky above him and intermittent power cuts make his endeavour almost impossible.

“As I am writing to you, I can hear dozens of warplanes outside,” the Gaza-based journalist told Ahram Online in an email.

Israeli aircrafts were targeting the bases of Hamas, the Islamic movement governing Gaza, and the Palestinian resistance faction of the Islamic Jihad, after the latter had taken responsibility for firing a salvo of rockets into Israel.

The pugnacious retaliation was swift. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would “strike” those who harmed Israel and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned of a reoccupation of the besieged enclave, and starting on Wednesday Israel carried 29 reported airstrikes in Gaza, according to Reuters.

Al Quds, the armed wing of the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group, issued a statement saying it had fired an estimated 60 rockets into Israel in response to a drone on Tuesday that assassinated three of its militants in southern Gaza in an air strike. Israel was allegedly responding to an earlier incident when Islamic Jihad fired a mortar round at troops reportedly trying to cross the Gaza-Israeli border.

Maath Musleh, a Jerusalem-based lecturer at the Al-Quds Bard College, said that Islamic Jihad’s use of rockets is the same tactic it employs every time Israel carries out assassinations of its members.

An Egyptian-brokered truce between the warring parties went into effect at 2pm on Thursday, but had failed to put a complete stop to the raids on Gaza.

Analysts responded with mixed feelings about Egypt’s role as arbitrator of the truce.

British-Palestinian Kamel Hawwash, a professor at the University of Birmingham, told Ahram Online that the truce was a continuation of the 2012 ceasefire between Hamas and Israel under the sponsorship of Egypt, with Islamic Jihad replacing Hamas.

He said that Egypt is moved by an interest to avoid a full-scale assault on Gaza, especially across the Rafah border, which Egypt will be pressured to open for humanitarian cases from Gaza should further violence break out.

On the other hand, independent Palestinian activist Abbas Hamideh told Ahram Online that Egypt’s involvement was “laughable,” considering its own “involvement and complicity in enforcing the siege in Gaza and making Palestinian lives miserable.”

The 2012 ceasefire was brokered following an eight-day confrontation in November of that year which left 160 Palestinians dead, including many women and children, and about 1,200 others injured.

Wednesday’s assaults have been seen as a potentially explosive sequel to the 2012 incident.

While Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian resistance movement forming in the late 1970s that has generally worked from exile, claimed responsibility for the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza last week, analysts have emphasised that Islamic Jihad has little interest in wresting power in the strip from de facto leaders Hamas.

“Historically, Islamic Jihad has not played a role in governing but focused on resistance.  There are no signs that it plans to change and enter the political arena,” Hawwash said.

Joe Catron, prominent Palestinian activist and campaigner for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, expressed the same view, stressing that the group’s mandate is tied to resistance to the Israeli occupation.

He adds that the movement has had a narrow focus on resistance, its most prominent stands including its abstention from politics since the beginning of the Oslo process, armed struggle, and a record of staging hunger strikes by Palestinian veteran detainees like Khader Adnan, Hana Shalabi and Mahmoud Sarsak.

“Islamic Jihad’s current standing is not particularly new,” Catron told Ahram. “For several years after the 2008-2009 military offence, clashes with Israel were far more likely to involve PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] than Hamas. And it has been a significant force in the resistance since its founding.”

 Hamas was still in full control of Gaza, journalist Abusalama said, though it was not involved in Wednesday’s confrontation, adding that Hamas was placing a high demand on Islamic Jihad to respond wisely to what the group deemed Israeli aggression. 

Hamideh, however, argues that Hamas’s credibility is cracking under its involvement in Syria, where it is sends resistance fighters to fight the Assad regime.

The confrontation in Gaza comes at a time when Palestinians and Israelis are engaging in peace talks under the tutelage of the United States, which are due to be completed next month.

It is likely that “Israel will use the recent escalation to further push for a higher bar for its security demands under a possible framework agreement,” Hawwash said.

A moot point in the talks has been Israel’s insistence on maintaining a security presence in the Jordan Valley, an area bordering Jordan, even after any agreement is reached.

Israel will argue that it “cannot allow for a 'Gaza-like' entity to emerge in the West Bank and that it is imperative it keeps troops in the Jordan Valley for this purpose,” Hawwash contends, a move that Palestinians would object to.

“With the deadline for the negotiations approaching, I think the Israeli government are delivering threat messages to Palestinians,” argues Musleh.

 

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